Newsline February 2018

Publishers, libraries, museums and archives are all in the business of communicating information. It is taken for granted that this business also include an attentiveness and design mindful that our communications will remain for the descendants of our society to access into an undefined future. In practice, though, what does that mean: how do we ensure that this access happens? Of course, getting information to users in a format they can use is part of this process. Permanence and preservation are front-and-center in all community discussions, but realistically, with limited resources and an ever-increasing amount of content, not everything can be be saved forever. Rather than permanence, persistence should be our aim, since it is an actually achievable goal.

Two weeks ago, I attended the PIDapalooza conference in Girona, Spain, which focused on anything and everything related to persistent identifiers. A talk by Geoffrey Bilder, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Crossref, spurred the question: What defines persistence? Geoff posited that persistence is not the same as permanence, but embodies more of a "blockheaded-ness" (to use his phrase), or a simple commitment to remain despite events, either planned or unplanned, which might otherwise cause deletion or replacement. In other words, persistence is the best that we can hope for in any of our communications; factors will always be stacked against us. 

I recall an article I read some years ago (and another more recently on the same topic) about scientists' and administrators' efforts to communicate information about the hazards of nuclear waste sites remaining for thousands of years into the future. These papers focused on the studies of a working group, convened in the early 1980s by the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corporation, called the Human Interference Task Force. This group explored possible mechanisms to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally exposing themselves to radioactive waste storage sites, for upwards of 10,000 years, as decay of some nuclear components is so lengthy. Since the half-lives of various types of nuclear waste are far longer time spans than any human language would endure, this situation presents a unique set of problems. Words, signs, and symbols--all standardized in the present will change and even have completely different meanings years hence: future languages unknowable to us now. The questions and potential solutions are fascinating. 

In the nearer term, and presented with a somewhat different set of problems in our own profession, what can we do to promote persistence--if not for millennia, for centuries or just decades? The topic of persistence is not only focused on technology or backwards-compatibility or maintainance of schemas or structures used when content was created. These elements are necessary, but not sufficient by themselves; persistence goes much further. There are social components to persistence: one has to use a similar process or approach to yield the same results; one must be committed to applying and using those systems over time and be committed to maintaining them. The organizations that support infrastructure require resources and funding to be maintained and grow as the needs or demands for the material continue. Support for persistence is a commitment and an active undertaking, not simply a state of being. It is for these reasons that the process demands long-term thinking regarding both structures and governance, at the outset of communications. Once systems are put in place, that entire infrastructure--from technology through social and financial support--requires advocates and community support. 

NISO strives to support persistence in all aspects of our work. Of course our standards have a measure of persistence built into the process, with cycles of review and maintenance meant to ensure that what is meaningful and helpful to our users will continue to exist. More recently, we've done our best to maintain persistence with the December launch of our revised website. However, despite our best efforts, not everything could be maintained. Some things that we meant to maintain slipped through the cracks of migration and we needed to go back to add them. We made conscious decisions to archive other things. It has taken considerable time and effort, as preservation always does, to get as far we have and there is considerable, ongoing work that we have ahead of us.

We perform this work because our community is committed to persistence. Support of persistence takes effort, but it is core to the mission of communicating information through time, which is a component of what we hope to achieve in creating and curating content.


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO